By Raleigh McElvery ’16
What do feminist military portraits, shoes made from human hair, and towering nude sculptures have in common? That question and many more were explored in Female Embodiment of the Visual World, a symposium that brought experts from China, Hong Kong, and the United States to Bowdoin to engage in scholarly conversation about modern feminist (and non-feminist) Chinese women’s art.
The Sept. 27-28 symposium was held in tandem with the opening of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art’s Breakthrough: Work by Contemporary Chinese Women Artists, an exhibition featuring the work of eight prominent female Chinese artists (on display through Dec. 22). The joint event was organized by Associate Professor of Asian and Film Studies Shu-chin Tsui, Assistant Professor of Art History and Asian Studies Peggy Wang, and Andrew W. Mellon Post-Doctoral Curatorial Fellow Sarah Montross.
“My hope for you today is that you will really enjoy what these small symposia can do,” Dean for Academic Affairs Cristle Collins Judd stated in her opening welcome, “which is create a conversation that is intimate, that is provocative, that pushes people to new places in their scholarship and understanding of the importance of this material.”
Keynote speaker Julia Andrews of Ohio State University began that conversation, addressing the gathering of Bowdoin students, community members, and international guests to offer a historical overview of Chinese women as both artists and artistic subjects, and to summarize the cultural background from which the eight exhibited artists arose. “I believe we are seeing slow shifts in the terrain as women artists are emerging,” Andrews said.
One prominent theme of the symposium was the label of feminism. In the first panel, facilitated by Bowdoin Professor of Art History Pamela Fletcher, Lara Blanchard of Hobart and William Smith Colleges spoke about contemporary female artists Cui Xiuwen and Yu Hong, identified as feminist artists since both depict women’s “inner lives” and emphasize the female point of view. Sasha Welland from the University of Washington focused on artist Lei Yan, a soldier in the Chinese military , whom Welland called a feminist artist with “a vision in which gender is but one socially reproduced mechanism that creates injustice in the world.”
Yet the notion of feminism in Chinese women’s art was challenged later on in the symposium. In a panel chaired by Carol Huh of the Smithsonian Institution, independent Chinese art critic Tao Yongbai gave a broad overview of contemporary Chinese female artists followed by a talk by Jia Fangzhou, another renowned art critic from China, who cited counterexamples to feminist artists.
In particular Fangzhou highlighted female artist Xiang Jing, who he said portrays Chinese women as individuals with steadfast dignity. Fangzhou noted that Jing and most of her contemporaries have spurned the feminist label, and added that he himself has recently discredited feminism as a solution to gender inequality. “I decided to give up my former feminist stance, and instead to fight for the rights of independent thinking and free expression,” he said.
Final speaker Linda Chiu-han Lai of the City University of Hong Kong, through a current research project involving discourses with female innovators, has also found Chinese women to be reluctant to categorize themselves or their work as feminist. “None of them really want to think of themselves as just a feminist artist,” she said, “but they’re very happy to engage with what feminism may mean to them.” One insight that emerged throughout the symposium: it’s no surprise that the label of “feminism” is being challenged, as Chinese women artists examine their past and look to the future for ways in which to redefine their place in history, culture, and the global context.
Female Embodiment of the Visual World, which brought the marginalized field of Chinese women’s art into the forefront of scholarly discussion, was the second in a series of four symposia led by Bowdoin faculty this fall, assembling experts from near and far to exchange ideas about topics spanning a wide range of disciplines including science, art, history, and sociology.